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Scott, Winfieldlocked

(13 June 1786–29 May 1866)
  • Richard E. Beringer

Winfield Scott

Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady, c. 1849.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-110151).

Scott, Winfield (13 June 1786–29 May 1866), soldier, was born at “Laurel Branch,” the family plantation near Petersburg, Virginia, the son of William Scott, a farmer, and Ann Mason. His father died when Scott was six and his mother when he was seventeen. He had two years of rudimentary education at a Quaker boarding school, and in 1804 he went to school in Richmond. He entered the College of William and Mary but left after a year to read law and was admitted to the bar in 1806. After the Chesapeake affair in 1807, Scott joined a volunteer cavalry unit in Virginia; his appetite whetted by this experience, he sought a commission as a captain in the army from President Thomas Jefferson, which he received effective 3 May 1808. He immediately recruited a company and was sent to New Orleans.

In New Orleans Scott was under the command of Brigadier General James Wilkinson, whom he had disliked ever since he heard Wilkinson’s self-serving testimony at the trial of former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr in 1807. Scott thought Wilkinson had covered his own guilt and called him “a liar and a scoundrel.” Scott was found guilty of disrespectful language at the resulting court-martial and was suspended from rank and pay for a year, which he spent reading military tactics. Scott was promoted to lieutenant colonel as of 6 July 1812 and became second in command of an artillery regiment as the War of 1812 began.

Scott was soon ordered to Lake Erie but became a prisoner of war just eight days after arrival. He was forced to retreat by overwhelming British forces at Queenston, and he and the other officers surrendered their commands when no rescue came from the American militia on the other side of the Niagara River. He had an understandable disdain for militia for the rest of his life. In November 1812 Scott was paroled, and in February 1813 he returned to his regiment a full colonel. As General Henry Dearborn’s adjutant general, he set about putting the army in order and establishing a general staff, following a French manual. He led the invasion at Fort George on 27 May 1813 and broke his collarbone in the explosion of a magazine. Although injured, he pursued the British beyond Fort George but lost a chance (as he thought) to capture the entire British army in the area when he received orders to stop pursuit (Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 91).

Promoted to brigadier general and placed under Major General Jacob Brown, Scott established a camp of instruction near Buffalo, New York, with himself as drill sergeant. Forming his officers into squads, Scott instructed them endlessly in marching, deploying, and using the bayonet, and his officers then rigorously drilled the men. The effectiveness of Scott’s training program was demonstrated at Chippewa on 5 July 1814. The British commander thought he was facing militia, but as Scott’s disciplined and trained troops moved upon him, he is alleged to have said, “Those are regulars, by God!” The victory restored American morale; for the first time in the war, American regulars had met British regulars in roughly equal numbers and won. The success at Chippewa was followed by mixed success at Lundy’s Lane. Scott heavily engaged the British in front while General Thomas S. Jesup conducted a successful flanking movement. The Americans did not have an adequate reserve, however, and both Scott and Brown were wounded. Brown ordered a retreat, and the battle ended with British control of the field, but tactically the battle was a draw, and American Soldiers had proved their ability to stand up to British regulars. Scott took no further active role in the war but received a gold medal from Congress and was promoted to brevet major general for his actions at Chippewa and Niagara. Moreover, his staff work for Dearborn and his training camp at Buffalo represented a new level of professionalism in the American army.

In 1817 Scott married Maria D. Mayo, the daughter of John Mayo, one of the richest men of Richmond, Virginia. The couple had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Because of tensions, which arose from their different temperaments, and her desire to travel, his wife was often gone for long periods of time, and from 1838 to 1843 she and their four daughters were in Europe.

In his memoirs Scott is relatively brief about the years after the War of 1812, which were marked by notable achievement but also by controversy. In a private conversation in 1817, for example, Scott incurred the displeasure of Andrew Jackson, when he described one of Jackson’s orders as mutinous. Further dispute developed in 1821, when Congress reduced the army. There would be only one major general, Brown, and two brigadiers, Edmund P. Gaines and Scott. The result was an acrimonious argument over seniority between the latter two, and in 1827, as Brown approached death, both officers violated army regulations by engaging in a pamphlet war over the seniority issue. When Brown died in 1828, President John Quincy Adams wisely appointed General Alexander Macomb, who was junior to both Gaines and Scott, as senior general.

In 1832 Scott was ordered west to deal with the Black Hawk War. Because of widespread cholera outbreaks that year, Scott studied the disease and treatment before he went. He was therefore prepared when the dread illness broke out on his troopships on the Great Lakes and won wide acclaim when he personally cared for some of the sick soldiers. He landed at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) as the epidemic appeared to be over and proceeded to Rock Island to negotiate a treaty with the Sac and Fox Indians. Cholera broke out again, however, and Scott wrote his famous cholera order, which required that drunken soldiers be forced to dig their own graves, for drunkenness led to cholera, Scott thought, and he saw no reason sober soldiers should perform the task (Henry Dodge Order Book, Iowa State Department of History and Archives). No sooner had Scott returned from the Black Hawk War than President Jackson called him to Washington to confer on the nullification crisis in South Carolina. Scott went south and unobtrusively inspected fortifications at Charleston, ordered their reinforcement, and went on to inspect other installations in Augusta and Savannah.

In 1836 Scott arrived in Florida, where he had been assigned to subdue the Seminole Indians after the Dade Massacre. Hampered by difficulties in manpower, transport, and supply, Scott’s campaign was unsuccessful, and he was sent to Georgia to deal with Creek Indian uprisings. Accused of delay by General Jesup, Scott was called back to Washington by President Jackson to face a court of inquiry. Scott was vindicated by the court, which amounted to an offhand criticism of President Jackson for failing to support his general.

At this point Scott was assigned a series of duties that won him recognition as peacemaker. After the Caroline incident in December 1837, President Martin Van Buren sent Scott to upper New York State to preserve U.S. neutrality by preventing American help to the Canadian rebels, for with most of the army in Florida, it was essential to keep the peace. He restored order without violence, holding public meetings to gather support, arresting American filibusterers, and blocking rebel efforts to transport arms and men across the international boundary. Scott was then sent south to superintend the removal of the Cherokee Indians under the Federal Removal Policy but was ordered back to the Canadian border to ensure continued enforcement of neutrality and to calm the boundary dispute between Maine and New Brunswick. Working with the governor of Maine and the lieutenant governor of New Brunswick, in 1839 Scott successfully persuaded both sides to withdraw troops from the disputed territory while the respective governments dealt with the boundary issue.

Scott’s peacemaking activities along the northern boundary led to a movement to nominate him for the Whig candidacy for president in 1840. He was backed by party leaders in New York and Pennsylvania, who actually wanted William Henry Harrison but did not want to push Harrison too early. Scott apparently never understood he was being used, and he accepted his defeat gracefully. He was also mentioned for the Whig nomination in 1844, but Henry Clay was nominated without dissent.

Promptly after the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, President James K. Polk offered Scott, who had become general in chief on the death of General Macomb in 1841, supreme command of the enlarged army. Scott immediately plunged into planning, which upset the naïve president, who thought Scott should be off to the Rio Grande instead. When Scott submitted his plan for an attack on Veracruz to Secretary of War William L. Marcy, Marcy was convinced that Scott was the man to carry it out. However, by then Polk feared the potential political strength of two successful Whig generals, Scott and Zachary Taylor, either of whom might become popular enough to run for president. Polk and Senator Thomas Hart Benton cooked up a scheme to appoint Benton lieutenant general to command the expedition from Veracruz to Mexico City. The idea was abandoned in the face of strong objections from both parties, and on 23 November 1846 Scott was appointed to lead the Veracruz campaign. He landed below the city on 9 March 1847 and spent two weeks establishing his position, digging trenches, and constructing gun emplacements in order to mount a successful siege. Veracruz surrendered and was occupied on 29 March 1847.

Moving inland, Scott turned the Mexican army under Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo on 18 April and advanced to Jalapa, where he paused, concerned about short supply and the loss of seven regiments of volunteers at the end of their enlistments. However, Scott arrived at Puebla on 15 May, and in July he received desperately needed additional troops and money for the purchase of supplies. Scott then cut his lines of communication with Veracruz and marched on Mexico City. This was a bold step, and in Britain the duke of Wellington was supposed to have remarked: “Scott is lost. He has been carried away by success. He can’t take the city, and he can’t fall back on his bases” (Eisenhower, So Far from God, p. 298).

Victory at Contreras opened the road to Mexico City. After a brief armistice, during which the Mexicans were to consider peace proposals but instead played for time, Scott resumed hostilities on 7 September 1847. Victories at Molino del Rey on 8 September and Chapultepec on 13 September forced the Mexican army to withdraw from Mexico City, and Scott entered on 14 September. In the face of civilian hostilities, Scott declared martial law over Mexican civilians and U.S. soldiers alike in order to prevent atrocities and placed the property of Mexican citizens under protection.

Then came news of the recall of Nicholas Trist, who was to negotiate a peace treaty, and Polk’s order to Scott to resume the war. Justifiably concerned about the bloodshed and expense of potential guerrilla warfare and long occupation duty, Scott urged Trist to negotiate despite his recall. Trist agreed, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave President Polk all he wanted, was signed 2 February 1848. Scott levied $3 million in taxes on those areas of Mexico he occupied and sent $100,000 back to the United States to be used for one of his favorite projects, an army “asylum.”

Meanwhile some of the other generals, especially Gideon Pillow, whose motives were clearly vanity and ambition, exaggerated their exploits in letters to a New Orleans newspaper in a manner calculated to downgrade Scott. Indignant, Scott placed Pillow (who had been Polk’s close friend, law partner, and political supporter) under arrest. Polk therefore relieved Scott on 13 January 1848 and ordered a court of inquiry. Pillow was charged with violating regulations by writing newspaper articles and exaggerating or falsifying his battle reports. Most of the testimony supported Scott, but the court cleared Pillow, and the president sustained the finding. Nevertheless, Scott eventually received the thanks of Congress, a gold medal, and promotion to brevet lieutenant general effective 29 March 1847 for the Mexican campaign.

Scott was mentioned for the Whig nomination in 1848, but General Taylor was elected president and died in 1850. The Whigs sought a military hero again in 1852, and the party mobilized for Scott’s election. However, Scott remained quiet on the slavery question and had been slow in his support of the Compromise of 1850, which worried southern members of the Whig party. He accepted the platform, which included full support of the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Law, which worried many northern members of the party. Scott lost the election, carrying only four states, although the popular vote was not nearly so one-sided.

The successful Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, appointed Jefferson Davis as his secretary of war, and Davis and Scott soon quarreled, initially over reimbursements for official travel. Scott and Davis argued over other questions as well, but the underlying cause of their quarrels was longstanding defects in the command system, which led to a division between the line and staff of the army. Whereas the secretary of war controlled the staff, he had not customarily commanded the commanding general, whose duties were undefined by law. Davis sought to remedy that situation, and he had the law and Constitution on his side. Scott maintained that he did not have to follow the orders of the secretary of war except when they were given in the name of the president, but he lost the argument when the attorney general’s opinion was that the orders of the secretary of war were always presumed to be issued under the authority of the president.

In the latter part of the 1850s, Scott devoted his attention to the establishment of a soldiers’ home, a retired list, and increased pay for officers. He opposed the Mormon expedition in 1857, and in September 1859 he was sent to the Pacific Northwest on one last peace mission, successfully easing a boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain over the island of San Juan.

Frightened by possible secession, Scott suggested in the fall of 1860 that the forts in the South be adequately garrisoned and renewed this appeal in December. During the Sumter crisis, Secretary of War John B. Floyd ignored Scott by directing military affairs without consulting the general in chief. However, when James Buchanan reorganized his cabinet, he and the new secretary of war turned to Scott for advice, and Scott proposed to send 250 recruits and supplies to Fort Sumter. In January 1861 Scott assured Abraham Lincoln of his loyalty to the Union, and in February he took measures to insure the peaceful count of the ballots of the electoral college and proper security for the inauguration.

Scott had no desire to follow Virginia out of the Union and did his best to persuade Robert E. Lee to stay with the Union and to take command of the volunteer army. Scott sagely predicted a three-year war, a Union victory, and then prolonged need for federal power to control the defeated states. He thought Fort Sumter was vulnerable and advised that it be surrendered. He also proposed the famous Anaconda Plan, which required a blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, a thrust down the Mississippi, and a cordon along the border between North and South. Although this plan was rejected, it was a closer forecast of what actually happened than anyone else was able to make.

Scott desired to avoid precipitous action, but when Lincoln insisted on prompt suppression of rebellion, Scott appointed Irvin McDowell commander of the army around Washington and helped him plan the movement that ended in disaster at Manassas. McDowell was replaced by George B. McClellan, whose shamefully arrogant behavior toward his commander and disobedience of direct orders drove Scott to distraction. Scott was greatly offended and asked to be retired.

Scott went on the retired list 1 November 1861. Suffering from dropsy and vertigo, he sailed for Europe to join his wife, who was already in the mild climate of southern Europe because of a bronchial ailment. He spent the summer of 1862 at West Point and wrote his memoirs, which were published in 1864. After spending the winter of 1866 in New Orleans, Scott returned to West Point, where he died.

Ever ambitious, eager to grasp another honor, and jealous of his rank and fame, Scott was vain and dogmatic. He was always ready to write a letter when he took offense at some fancied insult. According to one of his biographers, he was generous and outgoing and possessed a “constitutional inability to nurse a grudge” (Elliott, p. 648). He was also an extremely effective commander, most notably in the Mexican War. Timothy Dwight Johnson, however, believes that Scott had a deep “streak of meanness and selfishness” and that his “ambition fed his arrogance and, in turn, his arrogance fed his ambition” (Johnson, pp. 4–5). This judgment is probably too harsh, for there is evidence that Scott could be forgiving and merciful. His concern for his soldiers, as in the cholera epidemic of 1832 or his desire for an asylum, went far beyond the normal obligation of a commanding general.

Scott, an Episcopalian, read the Bible often. He was well read and had a library of books on military subjects that was always with him. His reading was a mark of Scott’s professionalism, as were his efforts to institutionalize such military skills as tactical training, camp sanitation, organization, and regularized procedure. Scott was responsible for much of the professionalization of the army between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, but his professionalism was limited by his narrow perspectives. His ideas were European in origin and did not fit frontier realities.

Scott never attained his cherished goal of the presidency, but he was not slow to express his views, opposing states’ rights and believing that the slow extinction of slavery was inevitable. According to a public letter written in 1843, he thought abolitionism was injudicious, “but I am persuaded that it is a high moral obligation of masters and slaveholding States to employ all means, not incompatible with the safety of both colors, to meliorate slavery even to extermination” (Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 373).


Many of Scott’s personal papers were burned and the remainder scattered, but because of his official position, extensive correspondence may be found in the military records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Examples of Scott’s contentious letter writing, which give some idea of what his superiors and subordinates had to tolerate when he was in a fit of pique, are in his Abstract of a Correspondence with the Executive, Relative to the Rank and Command of Major-Generals Scott & Macomb (1828) and Letter to the Secretary of War, or, Review of the Controversy on a Question of Rank between Generals Scott and Gaines (1827). Scott’s other writings include a “Scheme for Restricting the Use of Ardent Spirits in the United States,” (Philadelphia) National Gazette, 1821, and his widely circulated cholera order, both of which indicate his temperance proclivities. He also wrote numerous pamphlets arguing about courts-martial, rank, or politics, and his General Regulations for the Army; or, Military Institutes (1821) was revised by him in 1825 and 1835. In 1824 he published a manual of tactics, which was republished in 1825 and numerous times afterward as Infantry Tactics; or, Rules for the Exercises and Manoeuvres of the Infantry of the U.S. Army. His most notable publication was his rambling, vain, but informative Memoirs of Lieut-General Scott, LL.D. Written by Himself (1864).

Marcus J. Wright’s biography, General Scott (1893), is not particularly penetrating or critical but is comprehensive and informative. For Scott’s early career and his emphasis on professionalization, see the valuable work by Timothy Dwight Johnson, “Young Fuss and Feathers: Winfield Scott’s Early Career, 1808–1841” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Alabama, 1989); but Charles Winslow Elliott’s biography, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (1937; repr. 1979), is still the most complete and authoritative work.

For evaluations of Scott’s military career, see the above mentioned works of Elliott and Johnson and the leading military histories, but see, also J. David Valaik, “The Wars of 1813 and 1846: The Leadership Factor,” in The American Military Tradition from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. John M. Carroll and Colin F. Baxter (1993).